JAMADI-AWWAL / JAMADI THANI
Volume 17-06 No : 210
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Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz is the editor of the Delhi-based Urdu monthly Journal Science, the only Urdu magazine of its sort in India . Here he speaks to Yoginder Sikand about his work of promoting science awareness among Muslims, particularly among madrasa students.
How did you decide to launch the ‘Science’ monthly?
I received my basic education at the Anglo-Arabic School in Delhi. This institution was founded some 300 years ago, and was formerly known as the Madrasa Ghaziuddin. At high school, I decided to study science, although my father’s friends insisted that I should take up arts or commerce instead, because they felt that Muslim students are generally weak in science and that the school I was studying in had produced very few science graduates. But despite this I decided to go ahead and take up science. I then went on to do a doctorate in botany from the Aligarh Muslim University. I taught there for a couple of years and then shifted to the Zakir Husain College, Delhi, where I now teach. It was during my days at Aligarh that I began to feel the urgent need to motivate students of Urdu schools to take an interest in science. Relatively few students of such schools opt for science, because they do not generally score high marks, and also because the quality of science education in Urdu schools is generally very poor. They make science appear either drab and boring or else simply too complicated for most students to comprehend. There is also a paucity of texts and supporting popular science literature available in Urdu. Even today, besides our magazine, there is really nothing else being published in Urdu to promote science awareness in a mode easily intelligible to the man on the street. Then again, it struck me how the lack of science awareness at the level of the Muslim masses was so instrumental in sustaining and promoting a generally unscientific approach to life. Most students of Urdu schools come from poor families where science education is not given much importance, and if you don’t have a scientific attitude you will blindly believe anything that you are told. All this suggested to me the need to promote scientific awareness among Muslims, and that is why I decided to launch the journal.
You have written extensively on science and the Qur’an, and have argued that there is no contradiction between the two. What exactly is your own approach to the Qur’an?
I began seriously trying to study the Qur’an during my Aligarh days. I read several translations of the Qur’an, but as I moved from one translation to another I felt that they did not deal properly with several verses in the light of the growing stock of modern scientific knowledge. Undoubtedly most of the translations were good, but their authors, being human beings after all, were influenced by the conditions of their own times. So, I went back to the Qur’an in its Arabic original, and looked at particular verses, examining each word through authoritative Arabic dictionaries instead of seeking to understand the verses through traditional Quranic commentaries (tafasir). Now, in contrast to the traditional method, what I did was to examine a particular word or issue by going through the entire Qur’an to see the different ways and contexts in which it has been used throughout the text in order to understanding the different meanings that a single word or phrase can have. This approach leads to a widening of perspectives and to the possibility of enriching our own understanding of the Qur’an in accordance with developments in human knowledge.Take, for instance, the word al-mizan that is used the Qur’an. Traditional Quranic commentators translated it as ‘balance’, in the sense of a weighing scale. Today, that word could be widened to refer to other forms of balance, such as ecological balance or global economic balance and so forth. In this way, by widening the interpretive possibilities of certain terms one is able to stress the continuing relevance and inherent universalism of the Qur’an. Another case is the phrase in the Qur’an -rizkan halalan tayyaban, or pure sustenance. The word tayyaban or the linked word tayyab has generally been translated by the classical Qur’anic commentators as referring to what is pure. But the word has several other shades of meaning. The meaning of the word in the context in which it is used here in the Qur’an, referring to food, can be said to be broader than simply what is halal according to Islamic law. It can also be read as what is wholesome and nutritious. In other words, it can be said to refer to a pure as well as balanced diet, which then opens up the whole question of the science of nutrition.
Another instance is the word tasbih, which is derived from the word sabah, which means to move in an orbit. Now, the word tasbih is generally interpreted as referring to the rosary that Muslims count while reciting the praises of God.
This is only one meaning of the word, however. The meaning of the term could be expanded to suggest that a true Muslim moves in a fixed orbit, constantly following God every moment of his life, working for the establishment of a just society. But by reducing the word simply to mean a rosary we have reduced Islam to a religion of convenience.
I could cite several other terms to make the same argument. The wonderful thing about the Arabic language is that a single word could have a hundred different meanings, and to convey one meaning you could use a hundred different words. Hence, in line with growing human knowledge one can derive new meanings for particular words or terms used in the Qur’an. I believe that in this way one can show that the Qur’an is valid for all times.
So, what you are saying is that the Qur’an actually stresses the importance of worldly or scientific knowledge?
Exactly. The Qur’an uses the word ‘ilm for knowledge. Knowledge, as the classical Arabic dictionaries define it, is the exploration of the unknown. The Qur’an repeatedly exhorts believers to acquire knowledge, both of God as well as God’s creation. ‘Ilm, as used in the Qur’an, is not restricted to knowledge of God or His attributes. God has granted us the facility of sama’ (hearing), basr (sight) and fawad (thought), and He will question each one of us in the hereafter about how we used these facilities. The Qur’an describes the mysteries and wonders of nature as ayat or signs of God, and asks us to ponder over or to examine them because they reflect His glory. In the Qur’an, God asks us to reflect on the cattle, the clouds, the mountains and so on, these being described as among His many signs. I take this to be an invitation to actively study genetics, atmospheric sciences and geology and so on. If you take a tree, which is one of God’s many signs, and examine the intricacies of its roots, how they extract water from the soil, how they produce leaves and fruits and so on, you would be led to appreciate the power and the beneficence of God. By following the commandment of the Qur’an and appreciating the work of God as reflected in His creation, you are led to wonder at God’s glory, and this, in turn, reinforces your faith in Him. Looking closely at the marvels of nature, examining them and studying them, you are led on to praise God for His greatness as reflected in His creation. You then realize how every little particle in the universe instinctively follows God’s laws, or is ‘Muslim’, in the literal sense of submitting before God’s Will. This is true slavery (bandagi) of God, and this is what God wants us to do when he asks us in the Qur’an to reflect on physical phenomenon. When we examine a tree, we see a perfect society, we see how its leaves, branches, trunks and roots all work harmony with each other, helping each other, and how the tree sets aside its extra resources in the form of fruits so that animals and humans can benefit from it. So, we led to see how even a small tree is perfectly ‘Muslim’, and when God tells us to ponder on a tree we learn from it how to submit to God’s laws, how to live together with others in harmony and how to work for each other, to help the poor and those in need. In this way, the Qur’an exhorts the believers to study nature, and thus positively encourages the promotion of science and a scientific attitude.
In other words, you do not agree that there is a rigid distinction between ‘religious’ (dini) and ‘worldly’ (duniyavi) knowledge in Islam?
This distinction, which some ulama make, is completely foreign to the Qur’an and the early Islamic tradition. It can be traced to the colonial period, when almost all Muslim countries and communities came under European domination. Many Muslims reacted against Western colonialism by rejecting all knowledge systems associated with the West, including the modern sciences. Now, that, as I see it, was an un-Islamic stance, for the Qur’an says that in the hereafter God will question people why they rejected His verses without comprehending them through knowledge, and here knowledge is understood in its comprehensive sense, not as restricted to what is today narrowly understood as religious knowledge by some Muslims. You can gauge the importance that Islam places on knowledge from the fact that more than 750 verses in the Qur’an deal with knowledge, while only some 130 deal with prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and laws governing personal affairs. Rather than making a rigid distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge, setting them as apart and mutually opposed to each other, the Qur’an speaks of revealed knowledge or ‘ilm-i wahy, knowledge revealed by God to His prophets, as well as human knowledge, and it sees both as integral to a comprehensive vision of knowledge. Now, the knowledge that prophets possessed and preached is of two sorts. The first is the divine knowledge revealed to them by God (wahy). The other is knowledge of general things that the prophets learn as human beings like the rest of us. The Qur’an speaks of God teaching Adam the names of all things. Now what this means is that He taught Adam the properties of all things, for teaching someone the names of things without teaching him the properties of those things is meaningless. What the Qur’an seems to imply here is that God provided Adam with the instinct or capacity of gaining knowledge of all things in the world. The word ‘Adam’ here can be taken to be a metaphor referring to humanity at large, rather than referring simply to a single person. This instinctive capacity for knowledge that God has granted all human beings, which He has written into our chromosomes as it were, can only be developed through a supporting environment. God says in the Qur’an that He will test us in the hereafter about how we used this capacity that He has given us to expand our knowledge of His creation.
Now, the prophets were provided divinely revealed knowledge, as for instance the Qur’an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. This knowledge, being directly from God, is perfect and infallible. On the other hand, in their capacity of human beings the prophets also gained knowledge of the world around them. This sort of knowledge can be limited. The Qur’an very clearly suggests this when it asks the Prophet to consult his companions or resort to what is called shur’a, in certain worldly affairs. Let me cite another example to make the point. The Prophet once asked his followers not to pollinate their date crops. As a result, the next year their crops failed. The Prophet then told his followers that in worldly matters they should consult those among them who had better knowledge, and so allowed them to pollinate their crops. In other words, he admitted that in purely worldly matters he did not possess infallible knowledge.
Not all ulama would probably agree with you. Have you faced any sort of opposition to your views from the part of sections of the ‘ulama?
My approach is to create awareness about the importance of science among Muslims without creating a storm or any sort of controversy. I don’t believe in confronting or condemning the ‘ulama who may not agree with everything that I say. My only message is that to properly understand Islam one must go directly to the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a book of guidance for all Muslims, and so it should be studied directly by all, instead of relying solely upon a class of religious specialists and ancient commentaries. I simply argue that in order to make the Qur’an relevant to our own age and context you need to revise your understanding of the text. You cannot depend entirely on commentaries written centuries ago. You have to take into account the growing stock of human knowledge in order to properly understand the text and to appreciate its continuing relevance. In other words, there cannot be any final commentary on the Qur’an that is fixed and valid for all times. The absolute meaning of the Qur’an is with God alone, and we humans can only try our best to fathom its meaning, but this will necessarily always be limited, partial and incomplete. Unfortunately, the tradition of taqlid or blind imitation of past precedent has become so strongly rooted among many Muslims that we are unwilling to explore new aspects and meanings of the Qur’an.
Some ulama argue that teaching science in madrasas would cause their students to be led astray from the path of Islam. How do you look at this argument?
I do not agree with this way of thinking at all. In a commonly recited supplication, Muslims ask God to give blessings in this world and in the next (rabbana ateyna fi’d duniya hasana fi’l akhirah al-hasana). In other words, the way to the hereafter (akhirah) passes through this world (duniya). The Qur’an also categorically states that there is no monasticism (rahbaniya) in Islam. A believer will be judged by God, according to his actions in this world, the knowledge that he has attained here and the uses that he has put this knowledge to in the service of humanity. It is thus wrong to confine Islamic knowledge simply to knowledge of the Qur’an, Hadith and the rules of fiqh, or what I call the 5/30 formula—knowledge of the rules of the five daily prayers and the rituals of the thirty days’ fasting during Ramadan.
That said, I should also add that not all Indian ulama are opposed to the teaching of modern science in the madrasas. I have been regularly lecturing on science and on environmental protection at a madrasa in south India, the Dar ul-‘Umur in Srirangapatanam, near Mysore, for the last couple of years. Most of the students there are graduates of the Nadwat ul-‘Ulama, Lucknow, and some from the Dar ul-‘Ulum, Deoband. They are really eager to know about science and take to my lectures at once.
I’ve designed a science syllabus for them and am in the process of preparing a set of two science textbooks for the Dar ul-‘Umur, which can later be used in other madrasas as well. I have already decided on the name for the books: they would be called ‘Ilm ul-Ayat or ‘The Knowledge of the Signs’. I also regularly participate in the madrasa teachers’ training programmes that are organized by the Delhi-based Hamdard Educational Society, where I speak about the importance of teaching science in the madrasas.
To further promote scientific awareness among Muslims, including among madrasa students, we recently set up the Islamic Foundation for Science and Environment, which is a registered charitable trust based in Delhi. As part of the activities of the trust we have started free classes for girl students from local government schools from a nearby slum who come from poor families. We have a teacher who teaches them science and mathematics, and another teacher who teaches them Arabic and the Qur’an. We also organise Qur’anic classes and discussion groups. Some Muslim scholars, who belong to the ‘Islamisation of Knowledge’ project school, are calling for what they call an Islamic epistemology in every social and physical science discipline. How do you locate your own intellectual trajectory in relation to this project?
I don’t agree with everything that these scholars advocate. I mean, if you want to see everything green then either you paint everything green or else wear green spectacles. This, to my mind, is not the way to deal with the question of knowledge. What we need is the Islamisation of our thought, attitudes and character.
What sort of issues does your magazine ‘Science’ deal with?
As I said, ours is the only popular science magazine in Urdu in India. We cover various issues, including health, scientific developments and inventions, food and hygiene, as well as the Qur’an and science. Most of the articles that we have published are sent by our own contributors. Of our roughly 1000 subscribers, more than a fifth are madrasa students, and some of them are also among our contributors. We pay a nominal sum for the articles that we publish, in contrast to most other Urdu papers. We think it is not a recompense for their labour but, rather, as a token to start a good trend in Urdu journalism.
Dr. Parvaiz can be reached at No. 665/12, Zakir Nagar, New Delhi-110025, Ph: 32407788, Fax: (0091-11) 26984366, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wudhu is a great Ibaadah (act of worship). The Prophet (Pbuh) is reported to have said that when a person performs wudhu in the proper manner, all the (minor) sins that were committed are washed off by means of the wudhu. However, certain acts spoil this great Ibaadah and deprive one of the full benefits and virtues of wudhu. Among these acts is the wasting of water. It has been very conservatively estimated that at an average, most people use more than six litres of water for one wudhu. This is in stark contrast to the amount of water that the Prophet (Pbuh), used for his wudhu.
To use more than what is necessary is termed israaf. Regarding israaf, Allah declares: “Verily Allah does not love the wasters.” On one occasion the Prophet (Pbuh) asked a person who was performing wudhu:
“Why are you wasting water?” The person enquired: “Is there israaf even in wudhu?” The Prophet (Pbuh) replied: “Yes indeed, (do not waste) even if you are at the bank of a river.” Hence it is necessary to become conscious of this important aspect and refrain from wasting water during wudhu.
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